iPhone X vs digital camera vs film

Every year, comes September, Apple presents a new iteration of the iPhone, and every year, the iPhone gets better at taking pictures. One year, the iPhone gets better with low light shots, another year with portraits. Last year it started emulating the low depth of field and bokeh you normally get with a few high end lenses. This year, it will be about  studio lighting.  And every year, in the forums dedicated to digital photography (or should I say – to the cult of digital cameras), purists and fanatics develop new arguments to explain that “a photo shot with an iPhone is not the same, it’s looks artificial, you can see the difference”.

iPhone X_photo
The iPhone X launch ceremony – Sept 12th, 2017

Maybe. To the trained eye of a specialist. But for the majority of people, the pictures they get from their phones are much better than what they used to get from a point and shoot camera 10 years ago. Incredibly better than the prints they used to receive when they were shooting film. And now they can share them. Without having to be an expert.

Smartphones ARE the go-to digital camera of billions of people

  • We always have them with us,
  • Taking pictures with them is simple and intuitive
  • With their large, high resolution screens and easy to use interface, they’re a great platform to edit and enhance pictures,
  • The integration with email, messaging and all sorts of social network apps is seamless. And the images are backed up automatically (in a cloud) and made available in cloud based galleries.
  • did I mention selfies?

And they’re getting better every year – integrating better sensors, better lenses, adding optical image stabilization, adding a short tele lens, and using software emulation to let billions of people take pictures which used to require expensive hardware and a solid photographic knowledge (portraits with low depth of field and pleasant blurry backgrounds, studio lighting).

Clearwater Beach, FL –  Sunset – Shot with an iPhone 7.
Clearwater Beach, FL. Sunset – Shot with Fuji film X-T1 – which picture do you prefer?

As a result, smartphones are more than good enough for casual family photography or casual travel photography, and many news organizations have equipped their reporters with smartphones. In any case, the pictures will be primarily seen on screens (smartphones, tablets, laptops, TV), and on this type of support, the quality of the images (resolution, contrast, dynamic) is more than adequate.

Of course, smartphones are missing a few things:

  • No viewfinder (an issue when shooting outdoors on a very sunny day or with long tele lenses)
  • No ultra-wide angle lens (can’t emulate that)
  • No medium to long tele lens: the tele objective of an iPhone has a focal length equivalent to 56mm – even with the “digital zoom” (aka cropping) you can’t get beyond the equivalent of a 200mm lens, and with a reduced resolution.
  • No macro lens
  • No fine control of the exposure or the focus (you can put your finger on the screen to indicate where you want the phone to set the exposure or the focus, but that’s still pretty limited)
  • No way to control multiple flash guns or studio lights
  • And of course, they don’t have a 50 Megapixel full frame sensor.
Peniscola, Spain – Fireworks – Fujifilm X-T1 – Something you can not capture with an iPhone, yet

Where does it leave us?

  • Amateurs, families, people traveling light and all sorts of professionals needing good quality photographs will be happy with a smartphone
  • Soccer moms, enthusiasts, who need a longer reach and more control over the picture will use a bridge camera (such as a Sony RX10, Panasonic FZ1000), a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder or a dSLR.
    Provided they have the skills and have bought a few good lenses (in any case something better than the trans-standard zoom usually coming with the camera) – they may sometimes get better results than with a phone. It’s a bit provocative, but I would argue that a photographer of average abilities using an entry level mirrorless camera – with no electronic viewfinder and no flash shoe, paired with a 18-55 (or 16-50) kit zoom – is probably worse off than the user of a smartphone in most situations.
Tour de France 2017 – Fujifilm X-T1. Another one I would not have tried to shoot with an iPhone

What about film?

  • So far, digital photography has been about ease of use, convenience, and speed.
  • Film could not fight in the same category. Film photography requires more technical knowledge, it’s a cumbersome process, and it’s slow. Today, you shoot with film by choice, because you love the old film cameras, because you love having a piece of film in your hands, because you love the technical challenge, because you love the way images taken with film will look.
  • To some extent, conventional digital cameras are following their film predecessors, and have started leaving the mass market. They’re already in a niche, still large, but shrinking. Five or ten years from now, as the smartphones will have kept improving, the niche will be much smaller, inhabited by photographers who love to be in control of the technical characteristics of their images, and refuse to be deprived of that control by a smartphone.
  • Admittedly, film photography is an even smaller niche. But I don’t see it shrinking anymore. As smartphones become better at delivering pictures automatically, as digital cameras become the domain of perfectionists, a minority will look at film photography as the ultimate refuge for spontaneity and authenticity.

Venice – Fujicolor Superia 400 – Nikon FE2


Should we start collecting digital cameras?

Collecting is different from hoarding junk.

I’m sure we all have a few compact digital cameras stored in a drawer somewhere, that we don’t use anymore because, let’s be honest, any decent smartphone will do a much better job at taking, editing and publishing pictures than a dedicated compact digital camera sold 10 years ago. It does not make us digital camera collectors. We’re simply consolidating our inventory of obsolete electronics before a future trip to the recycling center.

Samsung Digimax 35 (0.3 MP, 2001), Nikon Coolpix L14 (7 MP, 2007) , Sony DSC-T20(8 MP, 2007), Canon Powershot S400 (2003, 4 MP)  and the Palm Treo 600 (0.3 MP, 2004) in the fore plan. Are my old digital cameras collector items, or just drawer-ware?

Collecting implies an intent.

A collection tells a story. The collector assembles objects which are significant for him or her, because of their esthetic or sentimental value, or to satisfy some form of intellectual curiosity. He or she may hope that, over time, objects in his or her collection will gain value, but financial gain is not the primary motive (if it was, he or she would not be a collector, but simply a speculator, a scalper).

We have the benefit of hindsight, and it’s easy to see what makes a particular model of film camera a better collectible than another one. I will group the criteria in three categories:

  • what the camera was in its early days: its technical significance, its build quality, its beauty, its performance, its cost, its rarity,
  • what it can do for you now: its usability (are film, batteries and lenses still available for that type of camera), its reliability over the long run, its ability to help you get great pictures, and the satisfaction you derive from using it,
  • the legend around it: is the brand prestigious, was this model of camera used to shoot a  famous picture, or used by a whole generation of war correspondents or reporters, did this particular item belong to a star or a famous criminal?

Obviously, by all three groups of criteria, a Leica M3 will be a better collectible than a mass produced, entry level, plastic bodied and unreliable APS camera from the late nineties.

Venice – Dec 2011 – Sony DSC-T20 (Photo: Valerie M.) A good digicam could take good pictures. A modern smartphone could probably do as well today.

What if we apply the same list of criteria to digital cameras?

  • what it can do for you now: that’s the biggest issue: older digital cameras are not as good as modern ones. A film camera has the benefit of being different from a modern digital camera with which it can not be directly compared (it’s a different user experience, a different workflow, and the output is somehow different), but an old digital camera can directly be compared to a modern one, and it’s not to its advantage: the resolution and the ability to shoot in low light are massively inferior, and the dynamics of the sensor is much narrower. And to add insult to injury, old digital cameras are also outperformed by smartphones in many casual shooting situations.
    Older digital cameras may not be as durable as film cameras – they’re full of electronics, and are generally powered by proprietary batteries that may not age well, and will require specific chargers, specific cables that, if lost, will rapidly become difficult to replace.
    Some of the most technically original (and therefore interesting) digital cameras like the Sigma cameras using Foveon sensors or the old Fujifilm S3 or S5 cameras using SuperCCD sensors require specific software to process or get the best of their raw files – but the software may not work with current or future versions of Windows and Mac OS.
  • what the camera was in its early days: it has to be put in perspective with what it can do now. Does it really matter that a Panasonic compact camera was considered the best compact camera for enthusiasts in the fall of 2005, when it’s in any case outperformed by an iPhone 7 Plus?
    By that measure, only a few cameras that made history technically are worth of attention : you can argue that the Nikon D3 changed the way we take pictures in low light and made flash  photography obsolete – and as a consequence deserves be part of a collection focused on important digital cameras. Similarly, cameras of an unusual design like the Nikon Coolpix 995 or equipped with a unique sensor that helps create different pictures (like the Sigma Foveon cameras) could become interesting curiosities.
  • the legend around it: I don’t think any digital camera has reached the legendary status yet.  Some cameras may be of special interest to collectors of equipment from a legendary brand – the first digital M camera from Leica, or the last digital camera made by Contax. But so far, I can’t see any digital camera that defines its generation, the way the Leica M3, the Nikon F or the Olympus OM-1 did in their heyday.

What digital camera would I collect?

Pinup and Naomi playing – The oldest jpeg file on my computer’s hard drive – taken in 2002 with a Samsung Digicam 35 camera. 640 x 480 pixels (0.3 Mpx). Does it  qualify as a collector, or as junk?

What is  important to me is not necessarily what’s important to you. To me, a camera has to be usable for casual photography, at home with my dogs, on a stroll in my neighborhood or while traveling. That’s why, when I shoot with film, I prefer cameras from the late seventies-early eighties to their ancestors of the fifties or sixties, too complex and too slow to operate for my taste.

In the world of digital cameras, I would not buy anything not capable of providing a good 8 x11 print, which places the bar at 6 Megapixels. I would also want the digital camera to be better at doing its job than a smartphone (if it was not, I would never use it and it would collect dust on a shelf):  it would need a viewfinder (optical or electronic), and would have access to focal lengths ranging from  24mm to 135mm. I’m not necessarily willing to invest in a whole new system: if the camera accepted interchangeable lenses, I would prefer some compatibility with the lenses I already own (through an adapter, possibly).

Lastly, I’d like the camera to represent a significant step in the evolution of digital cameras, and to have a few unique characteristics that would differentiate it from the mass of the me-too products of its generation.

What camera would qualify? A few Nikon pro cameras from the mid 2000s (D1x, D3) because they pushed the boundaries of image quality and  low light capabilities and made the film SLRs and flash photography obsolete, their cousins from Fujifilm (a S5 Pro, maybe) for their original SuperCCD sensor and the unique images it captures, or the Epson R-D1, the first digital rangefinder camera, or one of the most original bridge cameras from Sony, the F828.

Your choice would be different. Up to you.

More about using old digital cameras today: Ashley Pomeroy’s blog – http://women-and-dreams.blogspot.com with interesting reviews of  the Fujifilm S series (Fujifilm S1 Pro, Fujifilm S3 Pro, Fujifilm S5 Pro) and its competitors from Nikon (Nikon D1, Nikon D1x).

Venice – Dec 2011 – Sony DSC-T20- (Photo Valerie M.)

A more serious comparison – iPhone 7 Plus vs dSLR

For three years now, Arstechnica has been comparing images of a same scene taken with a high-end smartphone, and with two good full frame dSLRs. By the way, one of the two cameras they tested was Sony’s A7 II, which is a full frame mirrorless camera, not a dSLR, but we’ll ignore this detail . They just published the latest iteration of their tests:


Just a quote: “phones long ago left “good enough” territory; images produced by a modern smartphone like the iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel can be flat-out excellent when the images are constructed to play to the smartphones’ strengths.” (Lee Hutchinson)

No wonder the camera maker are now preparing Full Frame or Medium Format digital cameras with 50 MegaPixel sensors. Trying to maximize the advantages of a conventional camera for the situations when the smartphone is not good enough.

Chicago - iPhone 5S
Chicago – iPhone 5S

A photo scanner for $12?

ION iPCS2GO - the iPhone 4 and the 4x6 drawer are in place
ION iPCS2GO – the iPhone 4 and the 4×6 drawer are in place

$12.00, really?

I was at Barnes and Noble’s the other day, when I saw this ION iPICS2GO pseudo-scanner in the bargains bin. Not really a scanner, though. It’s a sort of light box. There is no lens or imager inside. It’s just a stand where the iPhone actually taking and processing the pictures will be set.

Coupled with an iPhone, it can scan 3×5 and 4×6 prints, and, more interestingly, 24×36 negatives or slides.

The iPICS2GO was boxed, so I could not see it. But it was only $12. And even if it was a piece a junk, it was worth trying.


The whole thing is rather bulky (the size of a toaster), but it looks solid and well built. The negative holder and the 4×6 print holders are made of plastics of good quality and will not damage the originals, and the iPICS2GO will just needs four AA batteries to work. The print or the negative being scanned is lit by LEDs, which seem efficiently color corrected.

There is an iPICS2GO app on Apple’s app store, that you can download for free and use to control the camera of the iPhone. Although Apple’s built in Camera and Photos applications will give the same results if you “scan” a 4×6 print, you will need the ION application to enlarge and invert the 24×36 negatives. You could do it with Photoshop, but if you had a laptop and Photoshop, you would probably also own a real scanner and would not be interested in this product.

The core audience

As mentioned earlier, the iPICS23GO is not a scanner on its own. But paired with an iPhone 4, it forms a cheap and portable scanner, and its bundled application makes it easy to edit and share the scanned images, via e-mail or through Facebook. I can imagine a situation where you visit old friends or relatives, and they end up opening the proverbial shoe box where their favorite Kodak prints are stored. You scan a few pictures for immediate consumption on the iPhone, or share them around via email or on Facebook.

In this situation, the results are pretty good. IN order to benchmark the iPICS2GO, I scanned a 4×6 color print (the picture had been taken by a good 24×36 camera 10 years ago) with the ION box and with the real scanner of an all-in-one photo printer from Canon. Both images were transferred to a Mac, uploaded in Photoshop, and printed again. The Canon scan is a bit better (wider tonal range), but not that much. If the goal is just to casually look at old pictures on a smartphone, share them on Facebook or even print them again (4×6 prints, please, nothing larger), the ION iPICS2GO fits the bill.

4x6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO "scanner"
4×6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO “scanner”

Scanning negatives, on the other hand, is a much more difficult challenge.

The app does a good job at converting the negative into a positive image, whose quality is acceptable as long as you look at it on the iPhone (the original 24x36mm negative has a diagonal of 43mm; the screen of the iPhone has a diagonal of 3.5in, or 88mm – Th enlargement ratio is roughly 2:1). But don’t try to export it to a PC, or even worse, to print it. As soon as you enlarge it, the quality becomes unacceptable, as can be seen on close-up (below, on the right).

Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative
Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative
Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)
Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)
Close up of the image created by the ION app (size: 376x240 points at 128ppi on an iPhone)
Moderate enlargement of the central part of the negative

I have to admit that the ION iPICS2GO is much better gadget than I expected. If your goal is to take snapshots of your favorite prints every now and then in order to have them always with you on your iPhone, it’s perfect. You can also email your images or post them in Facebook directly from the ION app.

On the other hand, if the only source document you have is a negative, don’t expect miracles. In the best case, the resulting image will be somehow acceptable as long as you look at it on your iPhone. Beyond that, it’s hopeless. If you love the picture, bring the negative to a minilab.

But in any case, an old picture reborn on an iPhone is better than any image forgotten in a shoe box.

Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4x6 print on a flatbed scanner
Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4×6 print on a flatbed scanner

The original images were shot in France in “les Gorges du Verdon”, a small scale version of the Grand Canyon, in 2001. I don’t remember which camera I was using.

Browsing CamerAgX from the iPhone

Cameragx blog page
Cameragx blog page

No. I did not write an iPhone app.

I’m just suggesting that you take advantage of a great function of WordPress, the blog engine behind this site.

The “appearance” of a WordPress blog is controlled by “themes“. WordPress developed a “theme” for small form factor devices like the iPhone, and automatically translates blog entries designed for full size devices into pages adapted to a small screen. Just launch the iPhone browser (Safari) and enter Cameragx.com in the address bar. The most recent posts of this blog will be displayed. If you want to see one page in particular, select it with a touch of a finger, and you will get it. Cool!

Now even better.

Let’s say you’re a fanatic supporter of CamerAgX. You can ask the iPhone OS to create a new icon, which will link directly to the CamerAgX web site. Press the + sign at the bottom of the browser screen, and select the “Add to Home Screen” option. A new icon will magically show up on the Home Screen.

By default, the stylized W of WordPress will be displayed – as is the case for www.techandsimple.com (shown in the third screen shot)

If the administrator of the blog created a logo for his/her site and uploaded it on the WordPress server, the Home Screen’s icon will be the site’s logo, as is the case for CamerAgX on the third screen capture.

Tools anyone?

Interestingly, no weird tool or utility was needed to create this blog entry. The screen copies published in this blog entry were captured directly on a regular (non jailbroken) iPhone, using a function of the iOS: to capture a screen copy, you just have to press the Home button, then press briefly the on/off switch at the top of the phone. The screen copy will be saved as a PNG file, and will be presented in the Photo Roll of the Photo application. From there it can be emailed to a PC, or transferred through iTunes.

WordPress also publishes an iPhone app for blog administrators, who will compose new entries, moderate comments and perform edits from their iPhone or iPad, but it is not necessary to download it to visit a WordPress blog (a similar application has also been published by WordPress for Android phones).

One last thing…The CamerAgx logo is a close-up of the top plate of a nice camera. If you’re a regular visitor of this site, you will have recognized it.

Cameragx iphone page
a Cameragx blog entry rendered on an iPhone
Wordpress home screens
The home screen of the iPhone - how WordPress sites are represented
Cameragx icon
The icon of CamerAgX in WordPress


More about WordPress at www.wordpress.org

More about the iPhone at www.apple.com

There are thousands of books about the iPhone, and probably hundreds of thousands of blogs about the same subject. “iPhone 4 Portable Genius” from Paul McFedries is a good book, and I check The iPhone Blog regularly for updates about the iPhone and the iPad.